In the Active Aging House of Burj Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, the Nakba is still a vivid memory. Some of the center-goers were in their childhood when, in 1948, the ‘catastrophe’ befell the Palestinians and more than 750,000 were ousted from their homelands. Around 110,000 took refuge in Lebanon that, due to the proximity, became one of the main hosts for the refugees. At that time the Palestinians thought they would make their way back home soon, but for 68 years they have been living as refugees and the keys they brought with them have opened no doors.
Marian, 68 years old, still remembers those keys. Her parents were holding them in their hands while telling about al Safsaf, the village in the Galilee they used to live in before the Nakba. She was a few months old when the Zionist forces captured the village from the Arab Liberation Army and dozens of villagers were killed. Many others fled leaving everything behind. “We left under air raids and came to Lebanon’s borders”, Marian tells me. “We stayed there for a short while until the United Nations gave us tents. So, we lived in the tents until the camps were established and the people started to build houses. During our evacuation from Palestine we drank dirty water, we did not get enough meals and up till today we are still suffering. We are living in a tragedy and we wish to go back to our homeland. Just sitting on our homeland’s soil would be sufficient to live with dignity, without struggling for our identity and finally getting rid of the word ‘refugee’. I wish I could go back to Palestine with my granddaughter and experience together as our elders used to live”.
Khadija, another woman who goes daily to the Active Aging House, run by the Social Support Society, can remember the Nakba even more vividly since she was ten years old when she left Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, along with her family. “Our house was near the train station. The train reached to al Hijaz (Saudi Arabia), went to al Sham (Damascus) and returned to Palestine”, Khadija tells. “On the side of the railroad station there were Amber trees. If you know what the Amber is, you should know how good it smells. At night its smell flows, very lovely. Presently, our house is completely destroyed, but the Amber trees are still there. I was told from somebody who has been there”.
Khadija remembers the cheerful days of her childhood, when she used to go to the beach with her friends and on Sunday all the family went on trips to the hot baths of Tiberias. But she remembers the days before their displacement too: “I remember them (the Jews) captured a man, tied him up with a chain and threw him into the lake. They besieged us strongly, they raided our houses by night and they came and shouted ‘kadima, kadima, kadima’ (Hebrew for forward). They continued to attack everyone until no one felt safe anymore. The Jews passed by the village in their cars and shot at people on the street; they did it almost every day for a month and after they came into our homes. That day (Nakba Day) was heavily raining and we left walking under the rain”.
The 1948 Palestinian displacement was not the only one that Khadija experienced. The Nakba took her close to the Syrian borders and almost twenty years later, the Naksa (Arabic for setback) that accompanied Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Days War forced her to flee into Syria. Now, another war, the Syrian civil war, has made Khadija escape again, this time to Lebanon. “I want to return to my country, to have an house, to enjoy my family, to not be a refugee anymore”, Khadija concludes.
Most of the Palestinians who fled during the Nakba are now buried away from their homes, some of their offspring preserve the memory of their childhood, while their grandchildren and their descendants can only rely upon the stories passed down from generation to generation. The narration is a key mean to keep alive the memory of a lost place, but even the memory is likely to fade away with the passage of time and with the growing frustration among the Palestinians. Seventy years are almost gone and the right of the return is becoming an unattainable hope.
Walking along the narrow streets of the Burj Barajneh camp, established in 1948 after the first wave of Palestinian refugees entered Lebanon, it is easy to cross many youngsters (25% of the inhabitants are under 25 years old), but just few of them are willing to talk about the Nakba, or Palestine either. A couple of teenagers say they do not know what Nakba is; many others just refuse to open the topic. They have to face a tough life in Lebanon, since the Palestinians are not formally citizens of another state, which means that they do not enjoy several social and civil rights: they are banned from several professions, they have limited access to public service and they cannot own property, for example. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), around 450,000 Palestinian refugees are currently registered in the country and about half of them are settled in the twelve overcrowded camps.
Wael, 29 years old, describes himself as a “Palestinian refugee from Tarbikha”, a village in the Acre district (modern-day northern Israel). “To me Nakba means that we have the right to our homeland. I was born here and I have never been in Palestine, I only know it through the stories that my parents and my grandparents told me about. Now my generation bears the responsibility to work for our right to return, even though nowadays it is a quite difficult task and sometimes it seems impossible. At this time we are not strong because the Arab world situation and the all catastrophes that are surrounding us, but still we have the faith and the courage, and we have to know that it is not impossible”.